Sunday, March 26, 2006

Choosing Hell

When confronted with the problem of why a loving God would send people to eternal torture in hell, some (perhaps the more squeamish) Christians who want to believe in both hell and God's love have a way out. Here it is. People themselves choose where they want to go. Either they choose to be with God or to reject God. If they choose to love God, then they get to be with him in heaven. If they reject God, then he withdraws himself from them including all that he is such as love, goodness, peace etc. What is left is hell, and so they are getting what they chose. Who would say that it is unfair when someone hates all things good, that these should be taken away from him?

Here's the problem with this reasoning. It assumes that loving the Christian-defined God is the same as loving all things good. But surely it is possible for someone to pursue truth, goodness, humility, caring, love of others, and the rest of the virtues, but without believing in the Christian God. Moreover, that person could have carefully considered all the evidence, and honestly concluded that the supernatural claims of the Christian revelation are false. It would actually be dishonest for him to believe, when he sees the sum of evidence pointing against belief. Or perhaps that person looked carefully at the actions of the Christian God including his ordering the slaughter of the Cananite children and his bloody masacres in the book of Revelation and concluded the Christian God is not good or caring towards the majority of humans (see: Is God Good?). Who would blame him for not choosing to love and worship the Christian God? But has he chosen heaven or hell? Christian dogma would have him going to hell, and yet he is much closer to knowing goodness than many Christians.

If choosing to think for oneself and to search for and follow the evidence wherever it leads is equivalent to choosing hell, what choice do I have? If I am to be honest in my pursuit of truth I'll have to risk it.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Doctrine as Fact?

I find it curious that many Christians respond to my questions about faith by informing me of Christian doctrines and stating them as fact. For example, saying "God loves you", or "God sent his son to die for your sins," and so on. But the question I have is not what Christian doctrines are, I know those better than most, but whether or not they are true.

So for example, I want to know: Does God actually love everyone? Just stating the doctrine that he does is not an answer, since how do you know that doctrine is true? Quoting a verse from the Bible ("For God so loved the world...") is a better start, but not a full answer either. There are two responses that still need to be addressed. First, is that statement compatible with other evidence we have both in the Bible and elsewhere? It is not hard to find some strong evidence against this in the Bible itself. God must have hated the Canaanites and their children as he ordered their massacre a number of times (see my post: Is God Good?). Can it be loving to take away everything someone has and then kill him, even if afterwards you might make it up to him in the afterlife? Surely that is not love. Then there is plenty of pointless suffering the the world that God could easily prevent if he really loved people (although this could lead to a long discussion).

The second response to the quote from the Bible that God loves people, is how did the author of the text know that and could he be mistaken? The author is stating his belief or opinion. Maybe he is wrong? To convince us he needs to argue his case and show us evidence. One reply to this is to say: No, it is God speaking authoritatively through the Biblical author and so he can't be wrong. But how do we know that? Because it is another Christian doctrine? That's not good enough as it needs stand on its own merits and evidence. Another reply is to say that the Gospel writer does give us evidence that God loves us: God sent Jesus to die for our sins and save us. That is progress, as now evidence is being considered rather than a doctrine being assumed. But how strong is the evidence? What is God saving us from? Presumeably from the punishment he has in store for us, but if he really loved us he could simply forgive us (see my post: God wants a relationship with you). Or maybe the love was expressed by a willing loss: a father losing his son to death is a terrible loss, and God willingly suffered a similar loss. But did he? Actually he got his son right back three days after he died. So what is the loss? The analogy breaks down here. Or maybe the love was Jesus' willingness to suffer for us. But consider an infinite being taking on a body for 30 years and suffering badly for a couple days at the end. That suffering is not much compared to the other suffering we see in the world. Many others were crucified, and many others suffered worse and longer drawn out tortures and death. That does not seem to be much of a sacrifice for an infinite being. So the evidence for love is kind of weak. Moreover, if God put us in this sinful world and in hopelessly sinful bodies, then surely he has a responsibility to help us get out of our fix?

My point is that I don't want to simply hear doctrines stated as if they were self-evidently true. Ask yourself, is it really true? Why do you believe it? What is the evidence on which you base your belief? (And authority is not evidence.) Does the evidence have holes or contradictions? Is there counter evidence? Also look out for self deception: are you believing it just because you want to or it makes you feel good or gives you hope?

Another response I hear is: "God's knowledge is higher than ours; we can't understand stand his love now, but we will after we die". But what I am trying to determine is if those claims about God are accurate or not. Just accepting them is an abdication of one's intelligence. Surely the key value of our intelligence is in guiding what we believe. If something may or may not be true, then before believing it one should at least make sure that it does not contain self-contradictions, and be aware of what evidence there is for and against it, and then make reasoned a choice to believe or not. Say I told you "Stalin really loved his people, we just can't understand his love", I think you would not suspend your judgement in rejecting that even though you can't undetstand Stalin's mind or fathom the reasons for all his actions. So our decisions of what to believe won't be perfect, but nevertheless we have no choice but to make judgements based on the limited information we have and our assessment of it.

We are stuck here on this planet with a host of religious and faith claims presented to us. We have to decide what to believe. Simply accepting doctrines will get us nowhere; which ones ought we to accept? If we arbitrarily choose some, then there is a very high chance we are falling into error. Rather, let's be guided by the evidence we can find and by our analysis of it.